Career's evolution takes judge to pinnacle
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Susan Mercer Hinrichs
Special for
Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell received an unexpected birthday present just before the holidays.

On Dec. 7, the day she turned 49, Mundell received word from Arizona Chief Justice Charles E. Jones that she was being named presiding judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court system.

Mundell said her thoughts turned to words like fantastic, but added she had not expected such an honor in her "wildest dreams."

Mundell will be both the first woman and first Hispanic presiding judge in Maricopa County. She moved into a temporary office in early January and is spending the first half of this year working closely with her outgoing predecessor, Judge Colin Campbell. Her five-year appointment becomes effective July 1, the start of county fiscal year 2006.

Mundell said many court programs function well. However, like the law, which is continually analyzed and modified, the court system also needs to be refined and improved.

"It's resources," Mundell said when asked about pressing court issues. "The fact the (Maricopa County) population is outstripping resources."

The county has been one of the nation's fastest-growing counties for a decade. The burgeoning population brings with it increased crime, which adds to the court caseload.

As presiding judge, Mundell will be responsible for daily court operations. It's a system with a budget of $192 million, scores of judges and more than 2,000 staff members, including probation officers.

She said that with staff assistance, she'll be able realize some of her goals, such as overseeing the building of six satellite court offices that can accommodate both judges and justices of the peace.

Another goal is to continue streamlining the case-filing process to ease caseloads. Maricopa County is regarded as a standard bearer for its technological advances, Mundell said. However, as computerized improvements increase, the opportunities for improving the filing processes expand, too.

Mundell said she also hopes to reorganize case-management systems in family-law filings to speed resolutions in Family Court.

In addition to her administrative duties, Mundell said she will continue to preside over two court calendars in which she has great interest: the jury scofflaw court and the Spanish-language DUI court.

Jury scofflaw court is where those who try to avoid jury duty have to come before a judge. Shaking her head in disbelief, Mundell said that only 10 to 30 percent of the people called for jury duty actually show up.

Mundell said her Hispanic heritage is why she continues to preside over the Spanish-language DUI court.

"I believe it's fulfilling to litigants when there's a judge who is one of them" and can speak their language, Mundell said.

Growing up in south Phoenix, the daughter of field workers, Mundell speaks fluent Spanish and said she learned firsthand about prejudice against minorities. Her upbringing led to her legal studies; Mundell said she viewed the law then as "the great equalizer," whose practitioners have the ability to right wrongs.

"It (the law) doesn't look at race or gender; it's blind to that," Mundell said.

The person she credits most for her drive to achieve and improve the lives of others is her father, Frank Rodriguez, 74.

She received her juris doctorate in 1981, and then worked as an associate counsel for Swenson's Ice Cream Corp. for two years. But Mundell found corporate law isolating. So she moved to private practice, providing representation in workers' compensation cases.

In 1986 she became an administrative law judge with the Arizona Industrial Commission. After working there from 1986 to '89, Mundell joined the Maricopa County Superior Court system, working as a commissioner from 1989 to 1991. She became a judge in 1991, initially presiding over civil cases.

Over the years, her work has prevented her from playing as much tennis or racquetball as she would like. Likewise, jogging and treadmill trekking fall by the wayside.

Relaxation comes in the form of family time. Mundell is married to Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bill Mundell. They have two daughters, one attending University of Arizona and a youngster in elementary school.

The evolution of her career has been somewhat surprising, Mundell said. "I never consciously set out to become a judge."